Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 704
The Real Thing represents a key part of Tom Stoppard’s ongoing interest in the nature of performance and theatricality. With its scenes of plays within the framework of the larger play, Stoppard, born Tomas Straussler, plays with the expectation and the perception of reality by both the characters and the audience. The play is also notable for being able to use this experimentation with a fairly conventional plot line. Stoppard confounds expectations by presenting a domestic dramatic narrative with the kind of theatrical experimentation seen in some of his earlier work, such as The Real Inspector Hound (pr., pb. 1968; one act).
The Real Thing also remains one of Stoppard’s most popular and accessible works, with little of the historical and literary references that mark some of his other plays, such as The Invention of Love (pr., pb. 1997) and The Coast of Utopia (pr., pb. 2002). The emotional and possibly autobiographical nature of the play, with the main character being a playwright, also has been a source of interest for critics.
The central question of the play is reflected in the play’s title. In the postmodern world, what is, if anything, the real thing? Characters grapple with commitment, responsibility, and prevailing moral codes in an effort to navigate a world in which meaning is relative. One of the chief institutions under examination is marriage. Henry and Charlotte have broken their matrimonial vows, but little weight is given to the vows, beyond their personal responsibility to each other. Charlotte even remarks that marriage is more like a bargain than a promise. Annie’s devotion to Max is rather thin, and she is able to get over their relationship quickly, despite Max’s protestations. In a conversation with his daughter Debbie, Henry talks about the mystery of sex while Debbie is frank and realistic about it.
The play also explores public responsibility through Annie’s efforts to secure Brodie’s release from prison. The motives behind her campaign are constantly in question. Annie’s ambiguity also mirrors her unstable relationships, with both Max and Henry suffering the consequences of her infidelity. At times, Annie seems to value her campaign for Brodie more than her relationships with people. At other times, she shirks her civic and social responsibilities in favor of her latest fling. Her wavering represents the problem of instability presented by a postmodern world. However, Stoppard does not pass judgment, but leaves it up to the audience to critique his characters’ actions.
The role of the artist is also under scrutiny. Henry is continuously dealing with conflicting roles of public artist and private aficionado. He agonizes about whether his list for Desert Island Discs is too pedestrian and is reluctant to discuss the science-fiction script that he is writing. However, he also worries about how he will be perceived if he works on a script that he believes to be poor—in the case of Brodie’s teleplay. He and Annie debate the role of the writer and the nature of the artistic standards that Henry values. Annie also has to juggle her political work with her own acting career and has difficulty when trying to merge the two.
Henry also finds further difficulties in living both an artistic and a personal life. Annie teases him at one point about his inability to write realistic romantic scenes. Henry is able to live romance, but not write it. He is able to create alternate realities within his plays but is unable to ground his personal life in real, genuine commitment. The breakdown of his marriage to Charlotte results partly from his neglecting to take the marriage contract seriously, as evidenced by his affair with Annie.
At its heart, The Real Thing is an examination of theatricality, illusion, and reality. Most of the characters are involved in the theater and, therefore, make their living by creating illusions. This bleeds into their real lives when they start deceiving each other. Just as it is challenging for the audience to recognize whether a given scene is real or not, the characters have to discover whether their emotions, commitments, and promises are genuine. Stoppard’s manipulation of theatricality highlights the question of genuineness for the audience and the reader.